How does one respond to a feature that qualifies as triumphantly successful within the scope of its own unusual goals and ambitions, but feels excruciatingly demanding to sit through? That's the dilemma posed by Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective. It's the saga of Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young and newly married police officer in Romania, enmeshed in a crisis of conscience. The department has tapped him to trail Victor (Radu Costin), a hashish-smoking teenager suspected of dope-dealing. As Cristi watches Victor and his peers, however, he concludes that the young men and women are only users, and not dealers, and argues (to the chagrin and consternation of his superiors) that any intervention on the part of the police would be foolish -- a seven-year sentence for hashish smoking and the ruination of some poor kid's life, when pot will inevitably be decriminalized in Romania within a few years, as it currently is in much of Western Europe.
Though some have classified this arthouse favorite as a thriller, it might be respectfully described as an anti-thriller; throughout, the director swiftly undermines genre conventions. In lieu of the standard suspense-driven (and action-laden) framework typically associated with police thrillers or dramas, Porumboiu pulls us into a realm where officer Cristi bides countless hours fruitlessly waiting for what may well be a dead-end investigation -- interminable periods spent outside of a school building, trailing suspects who consort with one another, checking license plate numbers, and sitting in offices awaiting meetings with superiors.
The average length of these takes isn't simply overwhelming -– it demands so much of the audience's unrelenting attention that Porumboiu risks falling into the same camp as Filipino director Lav Diaz or Hungarian director Béla Tarr. Though it checks in at only 115 minutes, the movie feels interminable. That represents part of its goal, however -- Porumboiu wants to do everything in his power to deglamorize police work, to strip the film of any clichéd conventions that viewers might instinctively associate with onscreen depictions of such work. At times, Porumboiu even deliberately draws out the banality of Cristi's findings via cutaways to endless police reports, with long-held close-ups of the scrawled-out contents on the screen.
On a broader level, the film incisively excoriates legal enforcement in Romania, 20 years after Ceausescu, putting into stark terms the way in which legalistic power and repression have become ends in and of themselves, eroding and then obliterating all consideration of inner moral conscience and common sense. The writer-director bridges this with an investigation of language; a final confrontation between Cristi and a hard-assed prosecutor finds the two men actually pulling out a dictionary and repeatedly dissecting the meaning of moral conscience and the law itself, on an icy, cerebral level -- much as Cristi and his wife debate the meaning of imagistic song lyrics earlier in the picture.
All of this functions brilliantly as a microcosmic distillation of Romanian societal attitudes and mores, which makes Police, Adjective a welcome addition to the Romanian New Wave, in the vein of Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest and Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. But the director's need to force viewers into a snail crawl of deliberation over every single development (in an effort to establish the day-to-day mindset of Cristi and his colleagues) occurs on such an extreme level that many Western viewers will feel profoundly alienated by the picture and risk missing the deep and wonderful insights that Porumboiu weaves into the narrative.